HL Deb 05 November 2002 vol 640 cc565-7

3.4 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they have made since 1st January 2002 towards putting an end to female circumcision in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, female genital mutilation is a brutal practice that is illegal in this country. The Government condemn the practice and wish to see it eradicated. We are continuing to work to educate the practising communities to abandon female genital mutilation. We have increased funding for FORWARD, the leading organisation working in this field. We have also been exploring how we might strengthen the current legislation governing that practice.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that encouraging and helpful Answer. Is he aware of whether Her Majesty's Government have any plans to prevent parents taking their small daughters out of the United Kingdom for the purposes of genital mutilation in the countries of origin? Is he also aware that preventive measures are in operation in some other member states in the European Union?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am aware of that. I am ensuring that the Department of Health obtains information about the successes of other countries in dealing with this practice. On the question of taking young girls abroad, that is—or can be—an offence if female genital mutilation is also an offence in the country to which those people are travelling. However, not all countries have made the practice an offence. That is why we are considering possible amendments to the current law. If a local authority has reason to believe that a child might be taken abroad so that mutilation can be carried out, it is obliged, under the Children Act, to make such inquiries as it considers necessary to decide whether it should take any action to safeguard or promote the child's welfare.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I took on the Bill concerning female genital mutilation from my noble friend Lord Glenarthur? At the same time, I was engaged with another Bill on intimate body searches. I strongly wondered whether I was ever going to do any legislation above the waist. Is the Minister aware of any fatalities in this country as a result of this disgusting practice, as do occur in parts of Africa?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am not aware of figures detailing the number of fatalities. One of the problems is that very little information comes to the attention of public authorities because the practice is kept completely under wraps. That is the great difficulty. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her work in producing and taking forward legislation in this area. She will know that there have been no prosecutions since the Act came into effect because so few complaints have been made.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, is the Minister aware that 25 years ago the General Medical Council passed a decree to the effect that any doctor who was guilty of performing this kind of operation for social reasons in the United Kingdom might well be guilty of serious professional misconduct and would face the risk of being erased from the register? What has been the effect of that particular decree of the GMC?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my understanding is that two doctors have been struck off: one for undertaking female genital mutilation in 1993 and one for offering to perform the operation in 2000.

Lord Chan

My Lords, in view of the life-threatening complications of female genital mutilation, particularly during labour, will the Minister tell us what plans there are to have partnerships between the NHS, trusts and local communities when female genital mutilation occurs? I refer to an example involving the Liverpool Women's Hospital and the Somali community.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am glad to commend a number of excellent schemes around the country that attempt to deal with this very difficult and reprehensible issue. There are a number of specialist clinics in the NHS, all of which have trained staff to deal with girls and women and which offer reversal surgery. We are undertaking further research into the scope of the problem. Among the issues that we shall examine are the scale of NHS provision and the extent to which we need to encourage statutory agencies to collaborate more.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, the Minister told us of the educational efforts that were being made in this area. Can he tell us whether a change in attitude towards this serious problem is thought to be taking place among the generations in some communities? Are any of the educational programmes directed at young men as well as at young women?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we are funding a number of educational programmes through FORWARD. I believe that the noble Baroness made some important points. So far as concerns the number of women affected, FORWARD estimates that approximately 74,000 first-generation African immigrant women in the UK have undergone female genital mutilation. It also estimates that as many as 7,000 girls under the age of 16 who live in practising communities may be at risk. Clearly we need to redouble our efforts in terms of education and support from statutory agencies. Above all, we need to make it clear that such an act cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I refer to the case of the person who was struck off for offering to carry out this operation. Can the Minister tell us whether such an operation is currently illegal? If he is considering changes to strengthen legislation in this respect, will that operation become illegal under his new proposals?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, although no prosecutions took place in the case of the doctors, it is not for me to comment on whether they should have done. The problem in relation to legislation does not concern prosecution; it concerns the fact that FGM is not illegal in certain countries. Therefore, in law we cannot take action against parents or other adults who take young girls from this country to those countries.